Jamie Roberts tells Michael Hickling why he came back to Yorkshire from the last outpost of Empire.
Jamie Roberts used to live with the saints. Now he’s following in the footsteps of the monks.
The previous home of Jamie and his young family was a speck in the ocean that’s hard to find. They left that behind to take charge of a Yorkshire landmark that’s impossible to miss.
The overhanging bulk of Kilnsey Crag is one of the sights of Wharfedale and the sheltered space in front of it is where the monks of Fountains Abbey once ran a successful sheep farm.
It’s here that Jamie and family are picking up the Yorkshire threads again after globetrotting adventures. This included two years on the tiny volcanic island of Saint Helena, 2,000km from Africa’s west coast, where the locals are known as “saints”.
It’s hot down there. Yorkshire on the other hand was at its harshest in the week of Jamie’s Easter holiday opening. The southern approach to Kilnsey was through canyons of frozen snowdrifts higher than a car roof. So much for the Dales in springtime.
Jamie and his wife, Amy, run Kilnsey Park which offers fly fishing, pony-trekking, red squirrels and nature trails for a family day out. It’s a life Jamie was born to. But even so, when he climbs the hill to check out the chill depths of one of his trout pools it must seem quite a change from the tasks required of him in his last job.
The most exotic of these was how to save the world’s rarest tree from going extinct. Saint Helena, 10 miles long and five miles wide and one of the most isolated islands in the world, also happened to be the only home of Commidendrum rotundifolium.
This is more generally known as the (ahem) Bastard Gumwood Tree. Only one of these still survived when Jamie arrived to take up his post as the director of the National Trust on the island. During his two years there, he was instrumental, along with a team brought over from Kew Gardens in London, in getting the sole remaining Bastard Gumwood to propagate.
“It was really exciting,” says Jamie who had come to the island with Amy and their sons Angus and Louis then aged two and four.
It was not long before Jamie discovered that on this postage stamp-size relic of Empire, progressive ideas about conservation such as he held did not go down well with the local British establishment. He was soon dropped from the Governor’s official invitation list.
He in turn found it uncomfortable that 3,500 locals – the “saints” – were living on an average wage of £6,000 while British civil servants posted there were on £60,000 salaries. But despite some obstacles encountered, he is proud of what he achieved on Saint Helena and has ambitions to go back before very long.
It’s not that easy. You either take a plane to Cape Town, followed by a sea journey of several days, or cadge a lift on a military plane to Ascension Island and then face a shorter trip by boat.
“It’s difficult and costly to get to, but remoteness is the essence of its appeal,” says 38 year-old Jamie. “We loved the simplicity, it was like an English village of half a century ago.”
The islanders’ single physical contact with the outside world is the Royal Mail post ship which turns up with supplies about once every 10 days. Not so very different really from the time when Saint Helena was colonised by the British East India Company in the 1650s.
Napoleon called it a “cursed rock” when he was first imprisoned and later exiled there from 1815, but Jamie hopes he can go back before the huge changes that are sure to follow after February 2016. This is when the first airport, now under construction, opens.
At first glance it seems odd that at a time of painful cutbacks at home, the British taxpayer is forking out over £200m for this expensive item in an overseas territory which has no assets to speak of.
But link in your mind this new airport with the discovery further south of the equivalent of 60bn barrels of oil around the Falkland Islands and you may discern a bigger plan. Saint Helena may find a new strategic niche for itself – which is the reason why we were interested in it in the first place.
Jamie returned to Yorkshire to take over the Kilnsey park on the retirement of his father, Anthony, who started it off.
He describes it as a “massive learning curve” and next month, to mark the park’s 35th anniversary, Jamie plans to walk 35 miles along the canal from Salts Mill at Saltaire with three alpacas in tow.
With the addition of a couple of angora goats, these five will form a little four-footed park colony. The choice of animals is significant and thereby hangs a tale.
It all starts way back with Sir James Roberts, Jamie’s great great grandfather. James was the uneducated son of a poor weaver, one of 18 children, who without any of life’s advantages (apart presumably from force of personality, natural intelligence and shrewdness) became a self-made industrialist, a philanthropist and finally a baronet.
This one-time boy mill hand worked his way up until he was in a position to take over one of the powerhouses of Yorkshire textiles, the palace of industry that was Salts Mill at Saltaire.
Sir Titus Salt had built his fortune here on the back of alpacas. For Sir James, the fibre of choice came from angora goats.
He extended the scale of Saltaire manufacturing by building the adjacent New Mill, prospered further and devised a family crest appropriate for a baronet. It featured an angora.
When Sir James’s upward climb faltered for a time, he was led, by an unlikely set of circumstances, to a business encounter with a bank official who just happened to be getting started as the greatest poet of the 20th-century, TS Eliot.
At the time Eliot was working in the foreign accounts department of Lloyd’s bank in London and his meeting with Sir James made such an impression that he drew on it for his greatest poem, The Waste Land, creating an image that precisely nails Sir James’s extrovert Yorkshireness.
Jamie takes up the story. “Sir James made his fortune with angora coats. Most of it came from Russia. He had a monopoly and went to great lengths to keep the angora source secret, even to the point of importing it from two different ports.”
It didn’t do him much good however when the Russian revolution put a stop to the lucrative trade. “He had a lot of investments in Russia and lost a lot of his fortune. It forced him to go to London to the bank see about reparations or whatever.”
In a section of The Waste Land, Eliot imagines the seduction of a humble office typist in her flat by brash clerk, a youth who despite his carbuncles is convinced of his attraction for the ladies.
The poem describes the clerk as…“One on whom assurance sits like a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire…”
The family were convinced that the man in the silk headgear was Sir James. “One of my cousins sent a letter to Valerie, Eliot’s widow,” says Jamie. “She confirmed that the Bradford millionaire was Sir James. She remembered Eliot coming home and discussing his encounter at the bank.”
Sir James had other serious literary credits. As a lad he had met Charlotte Brontë and in later life he purchased her home, Haworth Parsonage, and gave it to the Bronte Society.
In 1911 he bought the estate of 1,200 acres at Kilnsey which includes the crag, the showground and a stretch of the River Wharfe on which the members of the country’s second oldest angling club enjoy their sport. The estate was one of two bought by Sir James, the other is a castle in Perthshire.
“Dad was a dairy farmer here,” says Jamie. “Starting the fish farm and park was a way of diversifying. I helped out as a boy.”
But he always wanted to be a writer and had a lust for travel. On his mother’s side Jamie is closely related Robert Louis Stevenson which may have something to do with the way his thoughts ran.
In the Himalayas he taught English in Nepal. In London he tried his hand at journalism, working for trade magazines. But he decided conservation was to be his thing and became the first member of staff of Buglife, a charity which does exactly what it says on the tin. One of his numerous activities at the moment is training as a beekeeper.
He met his future bride Amy, who comes from Glasgow, at Leyburn farmers’ market. “I was selling trout, she was selling herbs.”
The medieval monks possibly chose this location for the biggest out-farm or grange of Fountains Abbey because it had a reliable source of water from a spring high up on one of the slopes.
The channel which they built to take the water down to drive a fulling mill is still largely intact and runs across the front of Jamie’s house.
Sykes Beck as it is called remains just as reliable and as useful. It now drives two turbines which provide much of the power for the park which includes a smokehouse where the trout are smoked over oak chippings.
On the same slope Amy is in the process of creating a medicinal herbal garden. There are plans for lake to plate workshops – learning to fish how to catch your fish and then how to cook it.
The monks farmed carp here at one time, so there’s a neat symmetry to what Jamie and Amy are doing. The red squirrels are here as part of a national conservation programme and a walk-through enclosure is being planned so visitors can view them close-up.
The country’s rarest wildflower, the Lady’s Slipper Orchid, was reintroduced on some of the estate’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest land and they will bloom late next month, assuming the snowdrifts have gone by then.
But Jamie hasn’t given up on his literary side. What about a comic novel set among the British in a tiny outpost of Empire in the 21st-century clutching on to the past as the world changes around them?
He smiles at the idea. “Yes, I can see sort of Graham Greene possibilities in that.”